When I started this list project, I thought it would be easy. The best would just jump off the statistical page, right? Wrong. Especially with the pitchers. Once again there are a lot of moving parts. Different eras, different managers, the expansion of the closer role, the adherence to pitch counts and the disappearance of the fireman role. For this exercise, I’m only looking at the time they played for Kansas City, which eliminates a terrific pitcher like David Cone (68 games over three seasons) even though Cone had one of the more dominant seasons ever by a Kansas City pitcher.
Likewise, for Roger Nelson (83 games over parts of five seasons) whose 1972 season remains one of the most spectacular in Royals history. Nelson had to make the team as a reliever out of spring training and didn’t join the starting rotation until July 4th. He started 19 games that summer and completed ten of them, including six shutouts, which is still a club record for a season. That summer Nelson set four team records that still stand including lowest ERA by a starter (2.08), WHIP (.871 – which was also the best in the American League that year) and hits per nine innings at 6.23. Oh, and he also save two games before the Royals came to their senses and moved him into the rotation. His final record was a misleading 11-6. In those six losses, the Royals only scored eight runs. It remains one of the all-time great pitching seasons in Kansas City baseball history.
Honorable mention – in alphabetical order:
Doug Bird, Tom Burgmeier, David Cone, Dick Drago, Al Fitzmorris, Tom Gordon, Mark Gubicza, Larry Gura, Kelvin Herrera, Danny Jackson, Charlie Leibrandt, Roger Nelson.
#1 – Bret Saberhagen
Drafted by the Royals in the 19th round of the 1982 draft, Saberhagen made his debut on April 4th, 1984 at the age of 19. He pitched in 252 games for the Royals over the course of eight seasons, accumulating a record of 110-78 with 1,093 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.21. He threw 64 complete games, made two All-Star teams and won the Cy Young award in 1985 and 1989. He was the MVP of the 1985 World Series. He threw the last no-hitter by a Kansas City pitcher on August 26, 1991 when he shut down the Chicago White Sox by a score of 7-0. His 1989 season was one of the best ever by a Royals hurler: 23-6 with a league leading 2.16 ERA. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2005.
#2 – Kevin Appier
Drafted in the first round (ninth overall) by the Royals in the 1987 draft, the hard throwing Appier appeared in 287 games in his Royal career over the course of 13 seasons. He tallied a fine 115-92 record with 1,458 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.49. Appier made one American League All Star team and threw 32 complete games in his Royal career, including ten shutouts. He led the league in ERA in 1993 with a 2.56 mark. Appier should have won the Rookie of the Year award in 1990 but finished third behind Sandy Alomar and Kevin Maas. Appier threw two one-hitters and two two-hit games in his career and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2011.
#3 – Dennis Leonard
Drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 1972 draft, Leonard made his debut on September 4, 1974. He pitched his entire career in Kansas City, appearing in 312 games and posting a 144-106 record with 1,323 strikeouts and an ERA of 3.70. He won 20 games three times and threw an amazing 103 complete games with 23 shutouts. From 1975 to 1981, Leonard was the staff ace and workhorse, throwing over 200 innings each season and going 120-80 in that 241-game stretch. He pitched for the Royals in five championship series and the 1980 World Series. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1989.
#4 – Paul Splittorff
Split was selected by the Royals in the 25th round of the 1968 draft and held the distinction of being the first Royals draft choice to make the big leagues. He pitched his entire 15-year career with Kansas City, appearing in 429 games during which he won a club record 166 games against 143 losses. He struck out 1,057 batters in his career and compiled an ERA of 3.81. He was the first Royals pitcher to win 20 games in a season, when he went 20-11 in 1973. He also started and collected a win in the first game played at Royals Stadium in 1973. Splittorff was a workhorse from 1972 to 1980, throwing 1,956 innings and winning 129 games in that nine-year span. Splittorff pitched in seven post season games for the Royals between 1976 and 1980 and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1987. After retiring from baseball, Splitt became the color commentator for the Royals television network, remaining in that position until losing a battle to cancer on May 25, 2011.
#5 – Zack Greinke
Greinke was drafted by the Royals in the first round (sixth overall) in the 2002 draft. He made his debut on May 22, 2004. Greinke pitched in 210 games over parts of seven seasons with the Royals, posting a record of 60-67, which is misleading as some of those teams were among the worst teams the Royals have ever fielded. In my opinion, Greinke’s 2009 season was one of the most dominating by a Royals pitcher (along with Nelson in 1972, Saberhagen in 1989 and Steve Busby in 1974). By June 28, Greinke was 10-3 and just seemed to be toying with hitters. He finished the season at 16-8 with a league leading 2.16 ERA which earned Greinke the Cy Young award. In five of his losses, the Royals only scored three runs. In four of his non-decisions, they only scored five runs.
Like I said, that 2009 Royals team was some kind of bad, finishing at 65-97. It’s well documented about Greinke’s social anxiety issues while with the Royals and his demand to be traded, which helped the Royals acquire the pieces needed to propel them to the 2014 and 2015 World Series. Greinke’s bounced around a bit, six teams in his now 16-year career. I believe some day he has a very strong chance to make the Baseball Hall of Fame. Anyone who saw him pitch in Kansas City have no reason to doubt his talent.
#6 – Steve Busby
Busby was drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 1971 draft out of the University of Southern California. Buzz made his Royal debut on September 8, 1972 throwing a complete game, five hit victory against the Minnesota Twins. Possessing a wicked slider and moving fastball, Busby threw the first no-hitter in Royals history on April 27, 1973. He followed that up by throwing another no-no on June 19, 1974 against Milwaukee, the only blemish being a walk in the second inning.
From 1973 to 1975, Busby was one of the most dominating pitchers in all of baseball, going 56-41 with a 3.54 ERA and 45 complete games. Busby was a classic “what if” case. His career was derailed by elbow and shoulder problems that started in 1976, which limited him to 20 games from 1976 to 1978. Royal fans rightly wonder if those teams would have gotten by the Yankees with a healthy Busby. Busby was a two time All Star and finished his eight-year Royal career with a 70-54 mark and a 3.72 ERA. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1986. Busby’s career was short, but those of us who witnessed him understood we were seeing greatness.
#1 – Dan Quisenberry
Quisenberry was signed by the Royals as an amateur free agent on June 7, 1975. He kicked around the minors for five seasons – Waterloo, Jacksonville then Omaha. His minor league stats were decent: 14-9 with 42 saves with a 2.00 ERA over 176 games. He finally got the call to Kansas City and made his debut on July 8, 1979 at the age of 26. The Royals considered Quisenberry to be a marginal prospect. He first used his submarine style delivery in 1980 at the urging of manager Jim Frey.
With his sinking fastball and pinpoint control, Quiz went on to lead the American League in saves five times in his ten-year Royals career while posting a 51-44 mark with 238 saves and a 2.55 ERA. His career rate of walks per nine innings pitched was the lowest since 1926. He was a three time All-Star and finished in the top three of Cy Young voting four times. He won the Rolaids Relief Man award five times and was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 1998. There has been serious debate the Quisenberry should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame since he has similar numbers to 2006 inductee Bruce Sutter. Quisenberry still holds the Royal club record for best career ERA+ with a mark of 160. Quisenberry was well known as a practical joker and funny man, revered by teammates and opponents alike. Cancer claimed him on September 30, 1998 at the age of 45.
#2 – Jeff Montgomery
Montgomery was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the ninth round of the 1983 draft. He made his major league debut with the Reds on August 1, 1987. Cincinnati considered him a marginal prospect and traded him to Kansas City on February 15, 1988 for outfielder Van Snider, in what remains as one of the greatest trade heists in Royals history. Kansas City installed Montgomery in their bullpen and the results were spectacular. On April 29, 1990, Montgomery became only the 23rd pitcher in baseball history to strike out the side on nine pitches. During his 12-year Kansas City career, Montgomery appeared in 686 games, recording a 44-50 record while saving a club record 304 games with a 3.20 ERA. He was a three time All-Star, won the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year in 1993 while leading the American League in saves with 45. He was inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame in 2003. In retirement, Montgomery is an analyst on Royals Live on Fox Sports Kansas City.
#3 – Wade Davis
Davis was selected in the third round of the 2004 draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He made his major league debut on September 6, 2009 for Tampa. He finished fourth in the voting for American League Rookie of the Year in 2010. Kansas City acquired Davis on December 9th, 2012 as part of the James Shields – Wil Myers trade. He spent most of 2013 in the Royals starting rotation and struggled mightily, posting a 6-10 record through the end of August.
Manager Ned Yost moved him to the bullpen as his “eighth inning guy” and the results were astounding. In 2014 Davis had one of the most dominant seasons ever by a relief pitcher, appearing in 71 games, posting a 9-2 record with a 1.00 ERA. He gave up 38 hits in 72 innings while striking out 109 batters. From June 25 to September 16, Davis did not give up an earned run. He did not give up a home run during the entire 2014 season. In 2015, Davis started as the eighthinning guy but moved into the closer role in late September due to Greg Holland’s arm problems. Davis was dominant in the 2014 and 2015 post season runs. Over his four-year Royal career, Davis posted a 27-15 record with 47 saves in 216 appearances with a 2.94 ERA and an ERA+ of 140 and was a two-time All-Star. On December 7th, 2016, the Royals dealt Davis to the Chicago Cubs for Jorge Soler, officially signally the end of the Royals playoff window.
#4 – Greg Holland
Kansas City selected Holland in the tenth round of the 2007 draft out of Western Carolina University. Holland made quick work of the Royals’ minor league system and made his Major League debut on August 2, 2010. Holland moved into the closer role in 2012 and made his first of two All-Star teams in 2013. In 2013 he posted a 2-1 record while appearing in 68 games, striking out 103 batters in 67 innings for a glittering 1.21 ERA. Over his six-year Royal career, Holland posted an 18-12 mark with 145 saves in 309 appearances for a 2.42 ERA. Holland still holds the club record for saves in a season with his 47 in 2013. In September of 2015, Holland tore his right ulnar collateral ligament and was lost for the remainder of the season and for the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. The Royals granted him free agency after the 2015 season, and he signed with the Colorado Rockies.
#5 – Joakim Soria, Part one
Soria had a long journey to the big leagues. The Los Angeles Dodgers originally signed him as a 17-year-old amateur free agent in October of 2001. The Dodgers gave up on Soria and released him in October of 2004. He signed with the San Diego Padres in December of 2005 and a year later the Royals selected Soria from the Padres in the Rule 5 draft. He made his major league debut with Kansas City in April of 2007. Soria moved into the closer’s role in 2008, and while playing for some terrible Royal teams, put up some impressive numbers.
From 2008 to 2010, he appeared in 176 games, saving 115 with a 1.84 ERA and an ERA+ of 235. He only allowed 40 runs in 186 innings of work. Soria was a two-time All-Star for the Royals. Now this is where it gets complicated for Soria. As all Royal fans know there is Soria I and Soria II. The Soria I era ended in April of 2012 when he underwent Tommy John surgery and the Royals declined his 2013 option. The Soria II era began when the Royals signed him to a free agent deal in December of 2015. Soria II wasn’t nearly as dominant as Soria I, but he was still reasonable. Soria I went 13-15 with 160 saves in 298 Kansas City appearances with an ERA of 2.40 and an ERA+ of 180. Soria II went 9-11 with 2 saves in 129 games and a 3.89 ERA before being traded to the Chicago White Sox as part of a three-team trade that netted the Royals Trevor Oaks and Erick Mejia. Few Royal fans would argue that from 2008 through the end of the 2010 season, Joakim Soria was as good as any reliever ever to wear a Royal uniform.